The Northern saw-whet owl is the symbolic face of conservation in Pennsylvania. The Wild Resource Conservation Program uses a saw-whet owl as its emblem, and the Commonwealth featured a saw-whet owl on its first specialty state license plate in 1993. Sales of that plate raised more than $3.7 million for research on threatened and endangered species before it was replaced by a river otter plate in 2000.
But it turns out saw-whet owls are not endangered, something learned through Project Owlnet, an owl-banding project that’s been operating just outside of Pittsburgh for the last five years. Project Owlnet is run by the National Aviary in the spring and fall. Volunteers are invited to join ornithologist Bob Mulvihill in efforts to lure saw-whet owls into nets to weigh, measure and band them so scientists can track the owls through their migration.
The Northern saw-whet owl is the tiniest owl in eastern North America, and as everyone who has ever met one will tell you, it is also the cutest.
“If your see one in person, you’re going to fall in love with it,” says Joe Lee, one of the regular volunteers with Project Owlnet. “…three inches tall maybe, two to three ounces in weight; just cute, absolutely cute.”
Lee and the other steadfast volunteers spend a lot of fall and spring weekends at Sewickley Heights Borough Park, just outside of Pittsburgh, helping with the owl banding project.
The ritual goes like this: as the sun goes down and the dog walkers head out of the park, the volunteers put on their head lamps and hike about a third of a mile down a muddy path. They carry long poles that serve as the net anchors. It’s a multi-person effort to hammer the poles into the ground. Standing about 7 feet tall and 30 feet long, the nets look kind of like a game of badminton.
Volunteers place a small, stuffed owl (named Buddy) in a tree as a decoy and then start the electronic caller. The caller is set to the saw-whet mating call, a distinctive too-too-too song. If everything works the way it should, owls flying overhead will be lured in by the call and get caught in the net.
After the scene is set, the group heads back down to a picnic table to wait. In between rounds, they talk about birds, or listen to the chorusing wood frogs or whining screech owls. Sometimes a flock of sandhill cranes goes overhead. The group returns to the nets every 40 minutes or so until midnight.
At the center of all the action is Bob Mulvihill, chief ornithologist at the National Aviary. He says that the group catches an owl roughly one in every four trips to the woods.
“So just enough to keep us coming back,” he says. “If we catch an owl, that makes for the best possible night. And it only takes one owl. One owl makes for a lot of happy folks.”
As the owl flies, Sewickley is not far from downtown Pittsburgh. So, initially, Mulvihill wondered how saw-whets would react to the city lights while flying and migrating. Would the lights affect the owl’s migration pathway?
“I came here really not being sure they might not just be completely avoiding this part of Pennsylvania because of the city,” Mulvihill says. “So finding out that urban green spaces like our parks can be important to something like a species of owl that nests in the remote boreal forest of Canada and Alaska, I think is a good thing to find out.”
Before Mulvihill began the Pittsburgh branch of Project Owlnet in 2013, very little was known about the saw-whet in this region, and its movement and distribution patterns are still mysterious. But the data collected on these nights help scientists learn more about them.
When the group finds an owl in the net, everyone helps with the data collection.
“We start with wing length, tail fat content, the keel, the field of breast,” volunteer Doug Cunzolo explains. “The weight, of course, is important. It helps us to distinguish which is a male and female because you can’t really tell by looking at them.”
They can also figure out how old the owl is using black light.
They band the owls with a unique number so researchers can learn about the owls’ migration path by literally connecting the dots between the network of Project Owlnet stations across the country.
Banding owls is a labor intensive project. It’s all hands on deck, even the littlest hands. Alina Sikora is a kindergartener who has been at this for three years already. She recalls one memorable night when her arm was used as the “tree branch” to release an owl after it had been measured and banded.
“The owl didn’t want to leave,” she explains. “And finally my mom did a little nudge and it went away. They have really sharp nails.”
Courtney Sikora is Alina’s mom, and she says coming to banding nights is like going to a family reunion.
“We just all love seeing everybody,” says Sakora. “My daughter loves to go for a couple net checks, and then she knows she has to go to sleep. We stay till midnight, but if we find an owl then she gets to wake up, pet the owl, be happy, and then go to sleep again.”
Mulvihill says over the five years of the project, they’ve learned a lot about the status of the Northern saw-whet owl in Allegheny County, including the fact that they’re here in the first place.
“No one had ever been looking for saw-whet owls in Pittsburgh,” explains Mulvihill. “I don’t think there were more than maybe one or two even accepted records of the species in the county. So the fact that they had, unbeknownst to even the world of birders, been flying over in numbers every spring and fall has come as a real eye opener.”
Cunzolo is one of Project Owlnet’s most loyal volunteers. He’s only missed a couple nights in 10 seasons. That translates to more than 600 hours spent in the dark woods waiting for owls. He says he’ll be glad to get his Friday and Saturday nights back but he’s going to miss coming out to the woods at night.
“It’s pretty neat, especially when we catch owls,” he says. “Those owls are just so cute. And soft.”